Itï¿½s musical chairs time at the MTC Biltmore. Theresa Rebeckï¿½s new play Mauritius, her debut on Broadway, is one of those roundelays in which each of the five characters is trying to screw the others out of his/her interest in some very rare objects (here, postage stamps) and the whole thrust of the show is to find out which one(s) will be standing when the music stops and the final curtain falls.
It is tightly plotted and full of the kind of snappy dialogue that one is familiar with from TV shows like Law & Order, for which Ms. Rebeck has written extensively. Doug Hughesï¿½ production is taut and shrewdly paced on a dark, clever set by John Lee Beatty that features double turntables.
What really gives the show some fizz, however, is a top-notch cast: Dylan Baker as the stuffy but shrewd stamp expert, F. Murray Abraham as the sleazy buyer with megabucks of dubious provenance, Katie Finneran as the waspy blonde probable ï¿½ownerï¿½ of the stamps who wants them to go to a suitable museum, Alison Pill as Finneranï¿½s estranged jeans-clad half-sister who has got the stamps and wants to make a quick but profitable deal for them, and Bobby Carnavale as the seemingly simple-minded but dark and charming would-be deal maker.
Last seen in Blackbird where she played a tightly strung rape victim confronting her assailant after many years, Ms. Pill here plays a tightly strung victim of abuse by the mother who has just died. She is very good at demonstrating both internal torment and the violence of retribution. And Mr. Carnavale has the kind of charisma that keeps you hanging on his every (appropriate) gesture.
Acting Artistic Director Dan Sullivan has gotten the MTC season off to a good start. Despite a somewhat obvious (and therefore disappointing) plot twist at the end, it is an enjoyable evening.
In the fast-paced, hard-driving world of stamp collecting, there is no little square of paper more valuable than the Mauritius Post Office. In 1839, the government of the island paradise of Mauritius, just off the east coast of Madagascar, issued a One Penny and Two Penny stamp with the likeness of Queen Elizabeth in the center, with "Post Office" engraved along the edge.
Big mistake. The words "Post Office" should have read "Post Paid." Today, the Mauritius Post Office stamps, of which only a few survive in mint condition, are considered the crown of any stamp collection, having a combined worth of approximately six million pounds. It is these stamps that are at the catalyst for all the disreputable shenanigans in Theresa Rebeck's interesting new play, "Mauritius."
The play opens with Jackie, a young woman of about college age, entering an austere philately shop clutching a red album under her arm, trying to get the attention of the proprietor. One expects to see Rod Steiger in all his "Pawnbroker" glory emerge from behind the desk, but instead, we have cynical, sneering Philip, played by Dylan Baker, declining to look at yet another inherited "please let this be the lottery" stamp collection.
With one of the best lines from the play, "Does this look like the "Antique Roadshow" to you?," Philip dismisses the seemingly naï¿½ve Jackie, sharply played by Alison Pill, whose album turns out to be a treasure trove of stamps bequeathed to her by her mother. Dennis, in black leather jacket regalia, played by Bobby Cannavale of "Third Watch," is listening from the other room, and runs to see what the noise is all about.
Dennis gives a quick look at the collection, despite Philip's insistence that the man knows nothing, and does a double-take when he sees you-know-what. Playing it cool, he says nothing and tells Jackie he'll see her later. So begins the you-scam-me-I'll-scam-you romp of "Mauritius." Problem is that in this connect-the-dots con, too many dots are left out of the picture, including Jackie's half-sister, Mary.
Mary, played by Katie Finneran, turns up when their mother dies and says the stamps belong to her. She's been estranged from the family since she was 16, and now, a grown woman, stakes a claim that Jackie insists is bogus.
So what happened with their parents? Why did Mary leave and sever all contact? How did she find out about her mother's death? What's the source of Jackie's anger toward her sister? Here's a bunch of dots that got left out, and in fact, could have been left out entirely since the fun is in the scam. The relationship of the sisters only serves as a "who owns the stamps" monkey wrench to complicate the sale to Sterling, a rabid stamp collector.
Obsessively played by that brilliant actor, F. Murray Abraham, Sterling has had a lifelong compulsion to acquire the Post Office stamps. Dennis tells him, essentially, I can get them for you wholesale. But in the short period between the discovery of the stamps and Dennis' meeting with Jackie later that night, she's becomes a Post Office maven and holds out for a mint, so to speak.
Jackie distrusts Dennis; Sterling, who drools over the stamps, disgusts her; Philip suddenly disappears; and Mary says she'll sell only to a museum. So tempers flare, fists fly, the stamps are nearly burned at the hinges, and after Sterling leaves, Jackie gleefully runs into Dennis' arms and wraps her legs around him. What's this? Maybe Jackie isnï¿½t that innocent after all. We never find out.
Given that two little stamps are enough to initiate a clever con, robbery, betrayal, family rancor, and near-murder, "Mauritius" should have been a better play. But with the loose ends of the con left loose, and the two females written as one-dimensional characters, "Mauritius" turns out to be flawed in important ways, though you won't realize it until itï¿½s over and you come out with that "huh?" feeling.
That's because the central story is absorbing, the male actors are excellent, and the mystery is intriguing. It's worth seeing because in the end, it's fun.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus
What the press had to say.....
ï¿½Directed by Doug Hughes, ï¿½Mauritiusï¿½ is neatly structured, fleetly paced, handsomely mounted and engagingly acted."
New York Times
"Rebeck's Off-Broadway work has shown a flair for snappy dialogue and characters, but plots would somehow go astray. In her Broadway debut, she keeps things lean and mean, while exploring a provocative parallel."
New York Daily News
"Inheritance, money and postage stamps - these are the strings pulling the characters in Theresa Rebeck's entertaining play "Mauritius"... But the characters are stronger than the strings pulling them, and the acting is better than the untextured characters being pulled. "
New York Post
""Mauritius"... is neither original nor surprising. It is, however, extremely enjoyable."
"A thriller about a stamp collection -- and that's no contradiction -- "Mauritius'" is a suspenseful new comedy-drama driven hard and fast by terrific performances."
"How many times can a playwright stress the appeal of flaws and errors before her audience grows a bit nervous?....But Ms. Rebeck... hammers this metaphor with a doggedness that draws unwelcome attention to her own plotting gaffes and ungainly speeches."
New York Sun
"Not even Doug Hughes, a good director, can breathe life into this stillbirth. Neither can the mostly gifted actors. "
"Its unwieldy plot veers from a David Mamet-like caper (complete with a flurry of four-letter words) involving a rare stamp collection to a soggy tale of two quarreling siblings to the intriguing interaction between two of the play's more off-kilter characters. And director Doug Hughes has a hard time corralling all three parts into a credible whole."
"The play is witty and absorbing, its virtues enhanced by Doug Hughes' crisp direction of an accomplished cast."